This determinedly non-flashy noir has influenced all over the place–Miller’s Crossing, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo owe much to Melville’s ‘perfect heist movie.’ The master of the monosyllabic crime film presents a complex and layered account of a jewel robbery. The film is consciously leaden, shot in real time for the most part. Melville’s central themes are alienation, masculinity, mundanity with flashes of downbeat violence. He is interested in the tenuous relationships of necessity between men, loyalty, duty and double crosses. It is a seriously male text–the only female ‘character’ of any note has all of one line. Melville’s austere and considered film style pays off profoundly–the shock of the rare violence made even more normalized and ordinary coming as it does in the midst of long, lingering shots and expansive silences. Like Le Samourai, the lack of dialogue and the stately direction contrast with the aspirational noir favoured by the rest of the nouvelle vague. In a Bout de Soufflé, for instance (something returned to by Terence Malick in Badlands), Yves Montand’s obsession with and mimicking of Bogart figured a glorification and celebration of cool noir. American cinema is at once escape and destruction. For Melville, in contrast, gangsterdom never attains this cache, being dirty and deadly boring at times. His influences are American (particularly The Asphalt Jungle), but his cynical world-weariness is defiantly French.
Alain Delon, recently released from prison, flees Marseille where he is no longer welcome, serendipitously hooks up with Gian-Maria Volonté’s escaped career criminal and together they plan a raid on an elaborate Parisian jewelry store. The originator of the plot is a prison guard’s brother who has been a model employee for some 17 years. This idea of trying to escape such a mundane life is often the mainspring for noir or gangster films from Double Indemnity onwards, but Melville very much presents the lives of the criminals as being quite as dull as those of the normal citizens and policemen. The band recruit Montand’s ex-police sharpshooter and together they rob the store before being double-crossed by Delon’s former employer and set up by the dogged and quite tragically lonely detective (played against type by famous comedian Bourvil). They die messily and the final lines are given to the Commissioner of Justice, whose bourgeois Protestant belief that every man has dormant sin in them looking to emerge concludes the film on a very cynical note and interrogates the audience’s expectations of a simple good/ bad binary of representation.
Various motifs and ‘red circle’ metaphors–from the opening stop light to the chalk on a billiard cue–are deployed as red herrings, blinds to throw the viewer a dummy. Similarly Melville’s script is full of moments at which you try to second guess him, or link things which you have very explicitly been told could not and have not been linked. Melville toys with audience expectations of spectacle and fantastical crime narrative, and it is only at the end when Delon and his gang lie dying that the viewer traces back their reading to ‘make sense’ of the film and understand that they were being played all along simply by assuming that they were going to be played. There are no double-crosses or spectacular coincidences, just some guys with guns stealing jewellery. This is the essence of the film, and the reason that the mise-en-scène is so achingly realistic and bleak. The cold mud that Delon and Volonté sink into at their first, circumstantial, meeting (and that they finally die in) is a figure for the film as a whole–soggy, real, dragging one down, messy. There is no existential moment of understanding or enlightenment here. Again, this is the reason for the film playing in real time. The agonizing tension is built simply through the agonizingly slow process of planning and executing a heist. Melville gives his scenes a pleasing heft–they feel real, right, substantial. Melville’s occasional stylistic tricks–panning shots, fluid dollying, jump-cut focus–serve to highlight the lack of flash surrounding the plot of the gang.
In many ways this is an anti-noir film. There are few conventions (and those that are in the film are, as I’ve argued, intentionally undermined.). The film has a stately pace, few visual motifs. The atmosphere is taut but hardly full of thick tension. Yet Melville is fascinated by American gangster movies, and the influences and intertexts are worn on the sleeve. The effect is the slightly unsettling thing called ‘cool’ (you’re contractually obliged to mention this when reviewing Melville). Alain Delon, moustache and raincoat worn ostentatiously, is the epitome of monosyllabic, primal cool. Yves Montand, intentionally recalling his cold-blooded killer from a Bout de Soufflé, exudes rumpled elegance. This cool is reactionary and male, self-defeating, existential. In the end it is lonely and destructive. There is a randomness that escapes the confines of the genre movie. Despite the Zen mysticism of the opening shots (every man is doomed to meet in the red circle) the story is interested in its own mundanity. These are gangsters, but they are gangsters who are not celebrated. In fact, they are simply common, everyday criminals. Melville’s noir is downbeat, unstylised, undistinguished, with enough flourishes to suggest an ambition that is constantly brought down to earth.